Like a growing number of Western-trained physicians, Meg Hayes, M.D., integrates some principles of alternative medicine into her practice. Hayes is a family practice physician and an assistant professor at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland, Oregon. Here Hayes offers her insights on being a smart alternative health care consumer.
First, Do No Harm
If you are considering an alternative approach, educate yourself about its risks and benefits. Find out which conditions the therapy helps and which conditions it might worsen. For example, chiropractic spinal manipulation may help with acute, uncomplicated low back pain, but it is not advisable if you have osteoporosis or a bone tumor.
"Traditional allopathic (Western) medicine is really the best system for many common and serious problems," Hayes says. She suggests relying on Western medicine when it comes to acute trauma as may result from a car accident. It's also advised for acute infections, medical emergencies such as a heart attack or anaphylactic allergic reaction, surgical emergencies such as appendicitis or bowel obstruction, high-risk pregnancies, or any symptoms that are traumatic, persistent, or alarming.
Use Herbs and Supplements Judiciously
Beware of possible interactions between herbs, supplements, and medications. "In 1997 it was estimated that 15 million adults in the United States took prescription medicine at the same time that they were taking herbs or high-dose vitamins," Hayes says.
For example, St. John's Wort is an herb that is a mild antidepressant, Hayes says. Studies have shown that St. John's Wort has the ability to prevent the reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin, leading to improved mood. "This is actually the same action as many medicines that are prescribed by physicians such as Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, and so on, and St. John's Wort should not be taken with those medications," Hayes cautions.
In the future, research currently being conducted by the National Institutes of Health may help determine the best way to use botanical products to optimize health. "In the meantime," Hayes says, "I recommend the use of botanical products that have a significant history of human use at the proper dose and duration." Do your own homework or consult with experts, she suggests.
Continue to Eat Well
Herbs and supplements should not be thought of as a substitute for healthy eating, Hayes says. The benefits of the nutrients you get through foods in your diet are not necessarily reproducible in a supplement.
To illustrate this, she points out that a few years ago beta carotene was thought to be helpful in the prevention of lung cancer, so manufacturers distilled beta carotene from plants and vegetables and put it into pill form. "We found that (beta carotene in pill form) really wasn't helpful at all," Hayes says. "In fact, some studies showed it may even be harmful with respect to lung cancer."
Hayes explains that there are many kinds of carotenes in plant foods. It may be that they work together synergistically to provide health benefits. "So we don't want to go to the tinctures and the pills and forget to eat correctly," she says.
Examine the Practitioner
When you are considering working with alternative health care providers, make sure that they have the appropriate training. Do some background checking: Did they complete an accredited program? Are they licensed? What are their professional affiliations? What is their educational background? What are their principles and beliefs?
Finally, trust yourself. Your own intuition about a particular provider or therapy can help guide you toward better health.